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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Thoughts on art and nudity

As of this morning, the case against acclaimed artistic photographer Bill Henson appears to have collapsed completely. A few days ago, the censored versions of the most controversial images, as published by news outlets, were given a G rating. The uncensored version of the most controversial image has now been rated a lowly PG. Australia's censorship authority, the Classification Board, has stated that the "image of breast nudity … creates a viewing impact that is mild and justified by context … and is not sexualised to any degree".

As of this morning, there seems to be no prospect that the relevant authorities will view the images as pornographic or that any legal action will be taken against Henson or anyone else. The Australian justice system appears to be working well. [Edit: A bit later, it was confirmed that no charges would be laid. Hopefully, the idiocy is now at an end.]

Assuming that there are no further dramatic twists, we can now reflect on the lessons to be learned from this debate, including the crude populist streak that has been revealed in a number of politicians, the cowardice of others, the prudishness and often sheer stupidity of many prominent commentators in the media, the Orwellian lengths to which others have been prepared to go to dream up some kind of plausible-sounding argument against Henson, the willingness of many to demonise the arts community for its supposed insensitivity and elitism, and so on. It hasn't been a pretty picture, and Australia has not been looking good - there's been all too much willingness to pander to the prudes and the merchants of moral panic.

One of the lessons is that many people are still unable to make even slightly nuanced judgments about images that involve nudity (another is that many people cannot make even slightly nuanced judgments about when it is, and when it is not, appropriate for the state to interfere on paternalistic grounds with family decisions, but perhaps enough has been said about that elsewhere, at least for now).

A few days ago, Guy Rundle - in a particularly wrong-headed piece in The Age - complained that Henson crossed a line, partly because nudity and "the power of photography" have deep-seated meanings. His piece doesn't tell us what those meanings are, but he claims, fatuously, that the images are "unmistakably sexualised". Well, the Classification Board obviously had a different view.

The images at the centre of the storm are, no doubt, open to many interpretations, but one thing that they certainly are not is unmistakeably sexualised. Nor are they pornographic by any reasonable standard. They are not even provocatively erotic, which is not quite the same thing (difficult though it is to draw any principled distinction between "pornography" and "erotica"). The images do nothing - certainly nothing unmistakeable - to encourage the gaze of pedophiles or invite sexual arousal.

At most, they suggest the sexual potential of the young people whom Henson has photographed, as they begin to metamorphose from childhood into the beginnings of adulthood. It's a vulnerable time, often misunderstood by the adult world, but with its own fleeting beauty (a beauty that most of us find unerotic, fortunately, but our opponents don't seem to be able to make the distinction between aesthetic beauty and sexual attraction).

In an earlier version of this post - published as a comment on Alison Croggon's blog - I said that I'd be astounded if this adds up to the "sexual context" referred to in various legislative instruments that are meant to forbid child pornography. As of this morning, I'd have every reason to be even more astounded (when I wrote the original comment I hadn't caught up with the very latest news that the controversial image of the young teenage girl had been given a PG rating).

It distresses me that so many participants in the current debate seem to think that nudity, in art or elsewhere, means one thing and one thing only: sex ... literal, unqualified sex. Not that I'm against sex. Quite the opposite. The point is, I'm against tunnel vision. It also disturbs me that anything even remotely associated with sex, or sexuality, or sexual potential, or perceived as having such an association, is automatically viewed as somehow shameful and (at the same time) dangerous.

We need to grow up as a society and take a much more informed and worldly view of these things. If we look around us, we'll see that our forebears adopted varied, and sometimes even contradictory, attitudes to sexuality, nudity, and the body, and maybe we can remind ourselves that all of this is our cultural heritage — and legitimate subject matter for artists of all kinds.

Christianity has been one (rather dull and miserable) thread through the history of Western civilisation, and it has tended to consider the body to be shameful, and insist that it be hidden. But that nasty manner of thinking about our physical selves needn't control our thoughts any longer. In many ways, modern Australia is a post-Christian society, and that's entirely a good thing. We don't need to look at all the amazing phenomena of the world around us through the lenses and filters offered by Abrahamic religion. We can open our eyes to view its splendour (and misery), well, naked.

In any event, those of us who live in countries like Australia (or the US, or the UK, and wherever else readers of this blog are most likely to come from) have the benefit of living in modern, pluralistic societies where no one cultural interpretation of the body (or anything else) is privileged over all the others. All must take their chances, and none merits endorsement by the state.

I said that our forebears had many complex, even contradictory, attitudes to nudity (and sex and the body). Here are just a few examples to think about:

* The stripping or revealing of the naked body when questions arise about what it is to be human - think of maddened King Lear, driven to despair by his ingrate daughters and exiled into the storm. (I can't help but think of Sir Ian McKellen's electrifying performance in the lead role when King Lear played recently in Melbourne.)

* Ideas of baptismal rebirth or the return to an Edenic or Arcadian state.

* Sexuality that is merely potential, not yet come to ripeness.

* The rejection of monogamy, prudery, and convention. A kind of wildness that defies society.

* The worlds of faeries and pagan gods: beings that far transcend the need for clothing to protect them from the world.

* Vulnerability. Not much more need be said about this; clothing can be a protection against the world, and the portrayal of nudity can represent various kinds of vulnerability. Notice, though, the word "represent". It does not follow that people who model nude of their own free will are vulnerable in ways that require the state to step in and protect them on paternalistic grounds. To conflate the two ideas is a form of magical thinking.

* Invulnerability (think of the gods and faeries again — they don't need clothes to survive, not like us; their bodies are at home in the cosmos in a way that ours can seldom or ever achieve).

* Lush exoticism with all its problems (sometimes a disturbing soft racism can be found in the domain that I'm trying to suggest here, in such works as Rider Haggard's nineteenth-century novels and their many imitators; still, the exoticism is sometimes quite innocent).

* The glorious muscular power displayed by strong unclothed bodies, male or female.

* Beyond this, the spectacle of super bodies in comics ... or in movies that use stunningly "built" actors such Arnold Schwarzenegger.

* And beyond this again, the suggestion of a different kind of power when humanlike aliens or monsters appear naked - simultaneously glorious and dangerous, perhaps both more and less than human.

* And finally, for now, moral decadence (yes, there's no doubt that that can sometimes be a connotation of the nude body, based upon the long cultural association of the body and its erotic capacity as shameful - but this goes along with all the other meanings that I've mentioned, and more).

For the past three millennia of Western civilisation, the body has often been despised; equally often, perhaps, it has been loved and glorified. At other times, it has been scrutinized intellectually or aesthetically, and yes, of course it can be utilised for erotic display. None of these ideas — or any combination — exhausts the potential of the subject matter.

The nude human body has endless connotations that have been explored by many artists in many forms and media over the centuries since civilisation itself was in its cradle. It would take a crude sensibility to reduce its depiction by a skilled visual artist such as Bill Henson to some kind of shameful voyeurism (and yet, much of the debate in the blogosphere consists of fools equating Henson's work with pedophilia, some even engaging in disturbing fantasies about how Henson must relate to his models).

Henson is surely well aware of the rich cultural tradition that I've been describing, probably more aware of it than any of us.

However, his detractors don't seem to understand it one bit. Much of what I've been reading over the past couple of weeks is thought without rigour or nuance. Some of it scarcely deserves to be regarded as thought. Much of what has been written in the blogosphere has been no more than puerile posturing (the commentators showing less maturity than Henson's much-condescended-to youthful models).

Maybe I'm an elitist, but if it's elitist to make an effort at analytical rigour and sensitivity to nuance, then I call elitism "good". I'll go and join the carnival of elitists and be proud. It certainly beats dismissing Henson's images as "revolting" in the charming language of our prime minister.

5 comments:

Stephen said...

I have a question about this PG rating. Are the child protection laws written to cover how the vast majority of the public judges images such as the one under discussion? Or, are the laws intended to prohibit the production of media which appeals to and can be sold to the appetites of sexual significance for pedophiles?
I agree that the vast majority will view the image as PG. I tend to doubt that the vast majority of pedophiles will have the same PG response when they see this image.
The CB targets a general audience and the child protection laws target the pedophile audience and I'm unsure that the Classification Board standards are intended to replace other areas of authority specifically written to protect naked minors. Well, it could be that the CB is given supreme jurisdictional right in resolving any conflicts between pornography and child employment legislations.

Tony Comstock said...

"We need to grow up as a society and take a much more informed and worldly view of these things. If we look around us, we'll see that our forebears adopted varied, and sometimes even contradictory, attitudes to sexuality, nudity, and the body, and maybe we can remind ourselves that all of this is our cultural heritage — and legitimate subject matter for artists of all kinds."

How can a society "grow up" if artists who create work that challenges the idea of what it means to make "artistically meritorious" work in and around the idea of sexuality cannot get their work seen by society? I will use my own films as an example, but only because I am familiar with the particulars. There are many other cases.

As a young art student it was clear to me that nudity and sexuality in contemporary art followed a set of rules that was as easily understood as pornography’s rubric. This is especially easy to observe in “art films”; sexuality must only be present in an explicit way if it is commentary on the ambiguities, or better yet, deficiencies of the human conditions. A recent examples are the movies SHORTBUS, given an R classification by the OFLC, wherein unsatisfying , failed, or unhealthy sex is presented in explicit detail, pleasurable sex is presented in passing, and transformative sex goes unseen.

I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with exploring sexuality within this well accepted art rubric. It’s a safe way to explore sexual imagery without actually challenging any of the taken for granted notions about the right and proper way to present sex as art. But it is not the approach I took in ASHLEY AND KISHA, (which had its world premiere at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival raided by the police,) or DAMON AND HUNTER, which was banned from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Documentary Film Festival, any of my other films (which have suffered similar fates in Australia and elsewhere.)

As much as my films are made with the hope of confronting the way that sex is presented in pornography, my films are made to confront the way that sex is understood to be acceptable in art, i.e., to challenge our conceptions of "artistic merit" at the intersection of sex and cinema.

In my films there is no ennui, no cynicism, no boredom or brutality, no disenfranchisement, disconnection, or disaffection. These are the proven cinematic devices used to signal “This is art.” – devices I intentionally banish from my films. I want to create a sexual and cinematic environment devoid of the familiar landmarks found in artfilms,and scrubbed clean of the familiar hiding places that allow people to watch lovemaking with clinical detachment.

In my films the human condition is a joyful condition. In my films human beings revel in their ability to connect with one another; physically, mentally, emotionally. In my films people know what they want and get what they want. My films are idealistic, passionate, and compassionate. In short, my films are a refutation of everything that art films have tried to teach me about love and sex. Where art is expected to be cool and detached, my films are lush; where art is expected to be coy, my films are frank; where art is expected to celebrate pain, my films celebrate pleasure.

These films have had precisely the intended effect. While these films (four in total) have been lauded by critics, played in film festivals world wide, are used by health education services, and enthusiastically received by audiences, the OFLC has found all four lacking in sufficient "artistic merit" as to be allowed to be seen (legally) by the Australian public.

Of course we have explored our appeal options, going as far as consulting leading Australian entertainment lawyer Raena Lea-Shannon, BA LLB. Despite the recognition these films have receive from critics, educator, and audiences, her legal opinion is that our approach to the cinematic depiction of sexuality is simply too far outside the status quo understanding of a "artistically meritorious" depiction of sexuality. Her legal opinion is that our films will never prevail on appeal to an OFLC review board. For my films, "artistic merit" is a legal dead-end.

How can a society "grow up" and take a more worldly view of sex if the state has the power to suppress artwork that challenges the commonly understood meaning of "artistic merit" in work that address sexuality? If the study of art history teaches anything, it is that "artist merit" is a constantly moving target, effected at any one moment by whimsies of fashion, politics, popularity, power. To argue that some expression may be allowed because of it's "artistic merit" is cede to the state the power to suppress expression for lack of "artistic merit."

Yes, I know, a lawyer may argue from one point of view on one day in one case, and from another point of view on another day in another case. I understand that from a legal point of view there differences between Henson's case and my own, with different issues raised. I am not questioning the right or the wisdom of a lawyer invoking "artistic merit" in Henson's defense.

I am suggesting a reconsideration of the entire concept of "artistic merit" as an operating principle in the law, and I am suggesting this reconsideration to those whom consider this concept a much needed defense against the suppression of free expression, artistic and otherwise.

I am trying, through example and argument, to show how ultimately this concept of "artistic merit" does not serve as defense of freedom of expression, but as a defense of the status quo.

I'm trying, through example and argument, to show how the concept of "artistic merit" ultimately cedes dominion over what may or may not be expressed -- by artists, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens -- to the whimsies of fashion, politics, popularity, power.

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, legally it's very complicated and I'm not actually sure how it all fits together. Also, we don't really know what charges were being considered - at least I don't.

Remember that there could be all sorts of technical hurdles to some charges (e.g. child labour laws wouldn't apply if the images were created outside of the jurisdiction, as they probably were, etc., etc).

It appears from media reports that the charges being considered related to federal censorship law (probably for distribution of a leaflet, which perhaps unwisely reproduced the most controversial image, and uploading of the images on the internet) and state law relating to possession of child pornography. The Classification Board has scotched the first by giving a PG rating to the material. As for the second, I think that the state authorities have realised, particularly in the light of the federal censorship body's decision, that it would be very hard to argue that the material is "sexual" within the meaning of the state law. They were probably coming to that conclusion anyway. In addition, there are defences under NSW state law relating to possession of child pornography, and those would very likely succeed if the case got that far.

I'm not sure if that answers your questions, but anyway it's my take on the situation - putting together what I read in the newspapers and my basic understanding of the law in this area. If anybody can correct it, feel welcome it: it's nice to get our facts straight.

Tony Comstock said...

Also, you may not be aware, but in the eye of the OFLC, photos of nude women are not considered to be "artistically meritorious" if they contain "too much genital emphasis," and the OFLC's definition of what constitutes "too much" is whether or not a woman's labia minora are visible.

Perhaps (perhaps) one might be comfortable if that meant photos of a woman with her legs akimbo were not "artistically meritorious."

But the way that it plays out in the real world is that in magazine that need to be available in mainstream outlets to be financially viable, women's genitals are photoshopped into indistinct slits. Not just in legs akimbo poses, but in all poses; a sort of digital FGM.

Imagine what that must feel like, as a woman, to be told that if your labia minora protrude beyond your labia majora, then you are lacking "artistic merit". It would be as if the state had decided that only pictures of circumcised men could be shown in magazines. That only circumcised men were "normal."

As a result, we now have the delightful phenomenon where women are now going to plastic surgeons to have their vulvas clipped and cut and trimmed to make them look "normal". The circle is complete. Censorship to art to real life.

Russell Blackford said...

For anyone interested in the relevant law, here's a good explanation on "inkster"'s blog of the relevant state provisions that probably would have been relied on: http://inksterpop.blogspot.com/2008/06/nsw-crimes-act-provisions-on-child.html